A Quick Ride to the Random

The way humanity interacts with the random seems one of the more interesting aspects of life. I have long been fascinated by that, and sometimes like to play around with it a bit. When I heard of the app Randonautica, I was intrigued since using a random location generator to generate some destinations around East London that I could cycle to sounded fun. Anything for some exercise, while lockdown madness storms onwards, right?

Of course, Randonautica bills itself as something a bit more than a random location generator. There is a lot of pseudo-science tied up in it based around “mind-machine interaction” and that most pseudo-sciancable concept of all, quantum physics. If MMI is a thing, it pretty much certainly wouldn’t work in the way that this app seems to be suggesting, which borders on mind reading. The idea is to think of an ‘intention’ while using the app’s generating function, which will influence the quantum nature of random number generation and increase the probability of the generated point being relevant to your intention.

And … the Randonautica app does have a bit of a strange reputation and a thoroughly memified cult of odd occurrences among its users. Search for it and you will find all sorts of videos – people blundering into weird and horrible things in ways that almost verge on the supernatural. “Do not use Randonautica”, they warn, which is, of course, a pretty good way to get people to use Randonautica.

Well – I’ll play along. 🙂 I set as my intention something quite easy (for London) – Art. Guide me to some street art, Randonautica! And for an agreeable evening, I was navigated around the quiet residential streets of Dalston, Stoke Newington, Homerton and Hackney. Did it guide me to any art?


I went past some art getting to these random points, and I had a lot of fun exploring small streets that I’d never looked at before – but the points themselves revealed absolutely nothing.

This is where the whole topic of the random truly starts to kick off. I didn’t expect any miracles because I am pretty familiar with what random means. I know very well that if I’d kept going, I would eventually have found what I was looking for. I also know that I would have had to keep going for an unknown but fairly substantial period of time for that to happen. And when it did, I’d go to that art and I’d think “ooh!” – and I’d remember it. I’d be thinking “Oh yes, Randonautica guided me to this cool mural”, which has a lot more weight in the mind than “Randonautica guided me to a random stretch of pavement. There was a postbox there.” Crucially, it is not only likely that with a sufficient number of tries Randonautica would send me to something marvellous, knowing that there is indeed street art in London, it is just about inevitable. It WILL happen. It will also inevitably send me to a dead body, or to my friend’s house, or to a dropped £20 note, or some such. The probability varies, but the probability is always there – and an improbability is a thing that can happen, not a thing that cannot. To find out how many tries it would take to find my street art, we’d need to know the percentage of ‘places’ with art compared to those without – which could theoretically be measured though I sure ain’t going to!

Confirmation bias. The tendency of the mind to generate patterns and to look for meanings. That’s what all this boils down to – indeed, it’s one of the more interesting examples of it that I have seen recently. And now, back home and in bed with a hot water bottle, I am musing. If I believed a word of the pseudoscience that surrounds Randonautica, what would I be thinking now? Would I be disappointed? Would I be thinking that I’d been impatient (actually true, given the laws of probability)? That it must be me that was wrong? That I’d not tried hard enough? Not thought my ‘intention’ loudly enough? That I’d not been ‘sensitive’ or ‘fervent’ enough? Even that I’d not ‘believed’ hard enough? Or alternately, would I be thinking I was playing the whole definition of art wrong? Would I be spinning philosophies in my head about what art is in an effort to justify what I’d just done? There were lots of Christmas lights, after all. Are they art? I see no reason why not!

There seems so much of the human condition tangled around this app because it is human nature to search for these patterns and meanings. The bottom line is not the arguments and mental twisting – it’s that a wish has crept in, almost unnoticed. We want this. On the trite level of my little trip – yeah, I wanted street art! I was looking for it. Street art had weight for me at that point, and that is powerful. But on more profound levels, far removed from this app, we find things like the urge to explain the unknowable, the need not to be alone, the fear of vacuums and endings, the phantasmagorical yearning for ‘meaning’ even as we are not quite sure what that ‘meaning’ means – everything. This wish lies at the heart of all things, and it is where this wish meets the random that it really becomes fascinating. The ways we can comfort ourselves or delude ourselves that what we want to exist does, that the world works how we want it to. And the role the random plays neither proves nor disproves any of this. Instead, it is the ultimate neutral. It provides a blank canvas – it provides us with miracles and coincidences and improbable events and horrible shocks and moments of freak-out, just as it will provide us with mundane streets, empty spaces and forlorn postboxes. It will always do this, as an ocean on which we navigate the small fragile ships that are our awareness.

The Randonautica app has a bit of a strange reputation … of course it has. I’d be more surprised if it didn’t. Because sooner or later, the improbable must happen. And because we tell stories.

Published in: on January 19, 2021 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Quick and Dirty Street Photography for a Festive Lockdown

Welcome to Christmas – Lockdown edition.

Night street photography is something rather new to me – as you can probably tell! In the past, I picked up the basics of long exposure night shots and took hundreds of them – they’ve been all over my Flickr stream with their luminous colours and eerie empty feel. I love them, but I have recently been trying to crack the secrets of its converse – it’s wilder and rougher sibling that is night street photography. That’s where, instead of spending ages faffing around setting up a shot and then waiting several seconds for it to expose, you are on the prowl, camera in hand, grabbing short-exposure handheld shots, quick and dirty. Walk, see, pounce/click! The trick here seems to be to learn to love the rough edges because, while you can never avoid the grain and blur that I fought so hard in my long-exposure work, they also come with a totally different energy.

One reason for this energy is because for the first time, my loved and hated London is populated! With long exposure, any figures that did happen to be there tend to vanish out of existence or be reduced to vague ghostly blurs – but now the action, night-life, people comes alive. The only problem is that during Lockdown, there were very little of that. In a way, that only made it even eerier – a technique that should have been bustling, wasn’t. This was a London quieter than it ever should be.

Around the festive season, I was out and about quite a lot on my bike, prowling the city. It was a time of drifting through London as though in a dream. Stopping in the middle of usually hellish junctions to snap photos. Taking roads I would never dare take under normal circumstances. I hopped the lanes in Camden. I took Euston Road and the junctions around Kings Cross. I passed through Shoreditch, which should be perilous with drunken revellers stumbling into the streets – by far East London’s most riotous area.

I was out on the night of Christmas Eve, when London seemed distilled into its absolute bleakest by lockdown, with those who can mostly off the streets leaving blend of determined wanderers and the sad wreckage of Tory Austerity centre stage. It was not complete silence – a few cars were still passing, a few people. Some guys singing wildly outside Camden Tube to the empty city – two women dancing tipsily at a bus stop, the odd shadow skulking in a corner, a few people walking home, arm in arm … if anything, that was worse than complete emptiness would have been.

And on New Year’s eve, my exercise took me to the Thames, where a sparse scattering of people were seeing in the new year in spite of all, watching the laser lightshow from the Shard. Some of these photos were almost destroyed by the low light and my inexperience, and I used a few filters on them to try and extract at least something. I might have tossed them but I didn’t because, while they may be disasters, they are disasters with a memory. A moment. I suppose in a way, these weird photos with their festering toxic skies and grainy ruined textures fit the mood of this most horrendous of new years – horrendous in more ways than just the lockdown etc.

Quick’n’dirty night street photography is something I will hopefully learn to handle better over time. You can see more of these and others on my Flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eibonvale

Published in: on January 18, 2021 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Covid Immunity – A Long Sciencey Post

Immunity! It was interesting to see this topic suddenly going viral around the news and networks recently – I was always rather confused why this whole subject was so little talked about, especially given that it is this very immunity that the vaccine is targeting. We’ve known for quite a while that immunity to Covid was continuing fairly normally. Of course, it was and is impossible to make assumptions about the future, both scientifically and in terms of precautions – the science is new and fuzzy and confusing – but even so, there were times when I was wondering whether it was deliberate, basic details of how the immune system works barely taken into account and the news deliberately slanted to keep us terrified. We were bombarded with reports about antibodies fading away, that people were being reinfected, that we could all be vulnerable pretty much forever, that we were all doomed …! I am a science fanboy, but I knew little about the intricacy of the immune system. I’d have expected to be told these things, though! Instead, I had to dig into the scientific literature and higher-end science reporting to find out much. The following is a hint of what we currently know, AS FAR AS I, A NON-EXPERT, HAVE BEEN ABLE TO WORK OUT in a tangle of new science, incomplete data, educated speculation, spin and chaos. Check for yourself rather than take my word for it, of course, and stand by for further developments.

The picture now seems to be that the immune memory is actually pretty good for most of us, even in the case of mild infections. As time has passed, there has been a steady parade of studies that basically reveal “yes, still immune now”, with the latest I looked at being just a few days ago (published in Science). The immune response is coordinated by B-cells and T-cells in a very complex choreography, with antibodies as just one part of that. It seems that in some people, antibodies may last longer, and in others the antibodies fade (a normal occurrence) but immunity persists from other mechanisms such as the T-cells. But at heart, immunity is still continuing for the vast majority. The reinfections reported are aligning with the fact that some reinfections are normal for any disease, probably for any number of reasons, including compromised immune systems. Even the classically one-off ones like chicken pox can reinfect to a certain degree (4-13% of so of cases). So far, none of this suggests a reason to panic or to see us as helpless in the face of the Covid virus. Whether immunity will eventually tail off and in the future some of us will need annual Covid jabs like the flu, or whether it will last a much longer time like SARS remains to be seen but for the moment, if you had a case of Covid at some point, it seems significantly more likely than not that you are still immune right now. And THANK YOU mainstream media for finally acknowledging this!

From an MIT article: “The researchers found that antibodies in the body declined moderately after eight months, although levels varied wildly between individuals. But T-cell numbers declined only modestly, and B-cell numbers held steady and sometimes inexplicably grew. That means that despite decreases in free-flowing antibodies, the components that can restart antibody production and coordinate an attack against the coronavirus stick around at pretty high levels. Crotty adds that the same mechanisms that lead to immune memory after infection also form the basis for immunity after vaccination, so the same trends ought to hold for vaccinated people as well.”https://www.technologyreview.com/…/covid-19-immunity…/

Some are speculating that the immunity provided by an infection may be stronger than that caused by the vaccine – at least the current generation based around the ‘fake’ protein spike. This might make sense, if proven, since in an actual infection the immune memory will presumably have much more to work with and ‘save’ in its database. This is not to say that the vaccine is ineffective, by any means – it will strengthen people a lot. But in general, according to the WHO, those who are confirmed or certain that they had Covid need not rush to be vaccinated – it is possibly worth stepping to the back of the line to make more available for others. That’s a tricky one to call, of course, because how sure are you? And also, this is where the somewhat skewed reporting about and lack of focus on immunity starts to bite because there has been so little acknowledgement of immunity in our lives so far, and none at all in any regulations, that I’m not sure many people will even think of that. The good news is that taking a vaccine on top of existing immunity should have no ill effects and will likely boost your immunity a little further. The bad news is that this has made the roll-out of the vaccine that much less efficient.

There are some secondary questions here that are also important. One would be “If one is immune, can one still spread the virus?” This is actually one of the less known areas and looking into it drops you into a dizzying tangle of maybes and not quite sures and we’re working on its. But as this is pretty vital for getting a normal life back again, it’s of huge importance. At heart, it’s a bad question though, because the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’, as the news and soundbites keep repeating. It seems that if one fights off a new infection of Covid following immunity, one may briefly be infectious during a period of virus shedding – less so, of course, but the crucial thing is how much less? The likelihood is that it will be drastically less than a full symptomatic Covid case, given the lack of symptom-based spreading mechanisms and the low viral loads, and possibly even reduced to near-zero. The WHO stated at one point that such transmission is very rare, and indeed this seems a common assumption among the scientists – but for the moment an assumption is what it remains, as far as I can tell. This is one thing that will need more work to prove and should come clearer as the vaccine is rolled out wider and time passes. It seems fairly safe though to say that Covid immunity is very good news for others as well as yourself. The fact that the vaccine is being given urgently to careworkers working with the very vulnerable, as well as the very vulnerable themselves, suggests that policy is being driven by this, at least up to a point.

The last question is maybe the biggest of all right now – “does this immunity apply to new variants?” The answer appears to be ‘probably’ – and a scientific ‘probably’ is very valuable – though it is important to remember how new this is, meaning that info is limited and to a degree speculative. Conversely though, it’s important to remember that the virus has varied almost endlessly since it appeared, with over 12,000 variants known, so even though what we have now is a fast spreading variant, it is by no means a unique event. The details of how mutations and immunity work are also positive here. According to Imperial College London: “With the emergence of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, many are asking what implications this poses for immunity either after natural infection or vaccination. The results of the current study reinforce the idea that most people, even following mild infection, carry antibody and T cell immunity to many parts of the virus (epitopes). While the new variant makes 17 changes to the virus’ coding sequence, most aren’t necessarily within epitopes. Therefore, the immune system will likely still be able to recognise and respond to the virus.” https://www.imperial.ac.uk/…/covid-19-immunity-lasts…/

Needless to say, none of the above detracts from the reality of what is happening or is an excuse for being dismissive or reckless (my disclaimer since a disclaimer always seems to be needed!). Science is fuzzy – a slow grind of data that can say many things, yet eventually focuses down into a more defined consensus. And for that, nothing substitutes time and work – we’ve had a vast amount of the latter but not much of the former. However, this is a sad portrayal of the way the news and viral media works, with the most sensational pushed and shared while quiet scientific detail and nuance gets ignored. Maybe the government as well, since it is well known that they have used scare tactics, as advised by SAGE. The worst is reported with great gusto for clicks and OMGs, the good news notably quieter. Exactly when this immunity knowledge will filter through to the increasingly finicky and ever-changing regulations is another question. And as people and society buckle under fear, either breaking down or lashing out at each other, it would be so nice to see some more nuanced reporting.

But it’s more than that. The government and the media stand accused with very good reason of scaremongering but to my mind, the more they do that, the more they whip up terror and emotional distress, the more they themselves are discrediting the issue itself. It is no surprise at all that more and more people will take a look at the overall tone of the info that they are being fed and switch off the whole thing, no longer taking any part of this seriously. They are utilising a polarising tactic that pushes every one of us either towards terror or denial.

Published in: on January 18, 2021 at 2:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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We Really Need to See Less of Each Other

This is … horrible! It has to be one of the most toxic ads I’ve ever seen. The original Magritte painting is, of course, a tragic one – the stifling effect of inescapable isolation as a force within you even as you strive to overcome it. I remember it well and there always seemed an emotional depth hiding within his cool and rather stark images. Yet there’s no way I can believe there’s any irony in its usage here – it’s not a statement on the tragedy of lockdown, which doubles down on those feelings so intensely. They’ve inverted it completely – the tragedy is good, moral and by implication, positive. It’s a classic Orwellian inversion, and I try not to compare things to him lightly. This is as an entire population buckling and breaking under the horrorshow that is our wrecked lives and the eternal and eternally confusing micromanagement from the powers that be – while being told stuff like this, which for some people will leave long-lasting scars. I am emphatically not ok through all this – is anybody? I doubt it. And this farcical poster feels a very strong reason why – the feeling of being played, both self and society. Me being coaxed to feel guilty about being lonely, whether I do anything about it or not. And society divided and turning on each other, stoked to judgementalism through moral manipulation that drastically lacks nuance. (Remember the days when people would get into screaming froths over exercisers merely sitting on a bench for a few minutes?) Seeing this for the first time felt as though someone had stuck a metaphorical knife into me – it was a tear-jerking moment, and a real blast of rage against a society that can’t handle the situation without the fingers that are this image digging into our brains and twisting.

Published in: on January 5, 2021 at 1:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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